Nancy Hawkins: 35 Years of Service to Louisiana Archaeology

Nancy Hawkins receiving award for her work on the Poverty Point World Heritage Site.

After 35 years my friend and colleague, Nancy Hawkins is retiring at the end of this year from the Louisiana Division of Archaeology in Baton Rouge.  Her final job responsibilities included Outreach, the Regional & Station Archaeology, Archaeology Month, Teacher Assistance and more.  Nancy played a major role or was completely responsible for many of the highly successful projects carried out by the Division over the past three decades.  These projects include The Indian Mounds of Northeast Louisiana Trail Guide, many of educational programs and publications by the Division, and most recently the successful nomination of the Poverty Point site as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And there is a bunch more.

I first met Nancy in the winter of 1995 when I applied for the position of Station Archaeologist at the Poverty Point site.  I don’t remember much of the interview process.  I do remember riding with Nancy on the four-hour trip from Baton Rouge to Epps, Louisiana.  I do remember how exciting I was to be considered for this position.  I had visited Poverty Point four years before on a graduate student field trip, stood in the plaza and said “If I could get a job working here it would be like dying and going to heaven.”  I got the job in 1996.

From 1996 to 2003 I was the Station Archaeologist. Over that period, I learned much from Nancy that helped guide my career for the next twenty years.  Those lessons were not always easy, but critical for any success I was able to have.  Here is some of what I learned from Nancy:

  • Appreciate the big picture.  In Nancy’s capacity of coordinating the entire Station and Regional Archaeology Program along with countless other activities and events, she always was as mindful of the whole as the individual parts.  These lessons served me well in my later career when I juggled the interests of multiple individuals to build a central institutional mission.
  • When I worked as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point, I absolutely loathed the Annual Reports we wrote that Nancy reviewed.  I saw this task as the equivalent of writing a new PhD dissertation every year – and in many ways it was.  But I joked with Nancy several years later when I was hired into a position where the organization had been on the decline for a several years, that annual reports and annual actions plans were the absolute key to keeping us on track to resurrect that institution.  It was through Nancy’s thoroughness in reviewing and administering these reports that I learned to show an accountability in what we were charged to carry out as public stewards of cultural heritage.
  • I have came to appreciate a thoroughness in working with Nancy on multiple projects over the years.  I readily admit that when I began my tenure at Poverty Point, I was very much like a kid in the candy store with possibilities.  I could zip from one project to another, trying to juggle too many balls in the air.  I recollect well my irritation when I would send a new project I was particularly pleased with for Nancy’s review, and she might note that, yes it looked good, but the images could be more sharply focused, and the text could benefit from some reworking – and she was right. When I came to oversee the production of exhibits later as  museum director or in applied student projects, I employed the same thoroughness and attention to detail – many times I suspect equally irritating the others, but providing them the same opportunity to learn.
  • Nancy exhibited tremendous insights during her tenure the with the Division of Archaeology.  Her vision for the Mounds Commission, the Louisiana Mounds Trail, and Poverty Point as a World Historic Site were absolutely instrumental to their becoming a reality.  In that capacity Nancy demonstrated tremendous patience and commitment to seeing those projects through, despite the obstacles that regularly surfaced.  This lesson has been absolutely key to my practice.
  • Perhaps one of the greatest lessons I have learned from Nancy was watching her facilitate the many projects she successfully shepherded through during her tenure.  Nancy masterfully could take just a little, find other resources and individuals with a common interest, get them working together, to produce a final product for which her name often appeared only as a footnote, but could clearly could not have occurred without her facilitation.  Over the past 10 years, this lesson from Nancy proved a guiding focus of how I came to operate in a several capacities.

This list could go on.  I enjoyed that Nancy could always ask tough questions, and still does for which I have no good answer – but force me to think.  The one nagging question she repeated to me during a meeting just a couple of weeks ago –  How are we able to evaluate the value of the public archaeology programs we create?

The State of Louisiana and public archaeology in general are much better today for the 35 years of service by Nancy Hawkins.  I would be remiss if I did not note how she was always supported by and functioned as part of a team effort.  Although there were certainly other capable folks both before and after my tenure in Louisiana Archaeology, what I consider my own personal Glory Days benefited not just from Nancy’s work but also the vision of individuals such as Tom Eubanks, Duke Rivett, Rachel Watson and all of my colleagues in the Regional and Station Archaeology Program.

As I am now retired to New Orleans, and taking up the cause of Louisiana Archaeology again as I am able, I have commiserated with Nancy about the decimation of so much cultural heritage work that was built over the past decades.  I believe the decimation is largely the result of misplaced priorities and the short-sighted vision of many elected officials.  There is no reason to be optimistic about the immediate future for cultural heritage resources in Louisiana or anywhere in the U.S. for that matter.  We will need to take the best of old models and adapt them to a new set of realities.  Without question the work by Nancy Hawkins and her colleagues over the past 35 years laid a solid foundation on which that future can be built.

The Poverty Point World Heritage Site, a Louisiana First

Nancy Hawkins with plaque presented to her at the dedication.

This past Saturday Poverty Point was formally dedicated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO. This is a big deal for the archaeology and cultural heritage in the state of Louisiana. Not too long ago I blogged about the dismantling of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology’s State and Regional Archaeology program because of state mandated funding cuts. I concluded that post by noting:

“Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.”

The World Heritage designation of Poverty Point provides an unparalleled opportunity to launch such a new direction. The 45-minutes of formal presentations at the dedication on Saturday were suitably nonpartisan and enthusiastic. The proceedings presided over by Louisiana Lieutenant Governor Jay Dardenne featured remarks by U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu and National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis. All spoke passionately about the potential the World Heritage Site designation brings for Louisiana. Special plaques were awarded to Nancy Hawkins of the Louisiana Division of Archaeology and Diana Greenlee, Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point to acknowledge their work in the nomination process.

As someone who watched the process of development unfold at Poverty Point over the past nearly two decades, I was struck by a several aspects of the Saturday dedication:

  • The politician who was and remains the most tireless and consistent champion of Poverty Point, beginning in his elementary school days, is State Senator Francis Thompson.  The Senator was not on the speaker’s platform but was invited to come forward to say a few words. Thompson is a phenomenal orator who combines the best of the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone Southern preacher and politician. His few words, which of course stretched into as long as any of the featured speakers, did not disappoint. Lieutenant Governor Dardenne spoke of the last eight years in shepherding the nomination through the World Heritage Process. Senator Thompson was able to extend and personally speak to that process going back to his childhood.
  • Nancy Hawkins and Diana Greenlee were acknowledged as the individuals who gave the Lieutentant Governor and others the raw material to even launch the process. Nancy and the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks were responsible for creating the Station Archaeology program at Poverty Point that ultimately allowed for Diana Greenlee to put together the nomination document.
  • The Native American tribal affiliates in Louisiana were recognized by Dardenne. Had their ancestors not built the earthwork, Poverty Point would be long forgotten today or only the name of an obscure 19th Century Plantation.
  • There were also a bunch of archaeologists and soil scientists present on Saturday such as Jon Gibson, Bob Neuman, Joe Saunders, Thurman Allen and others who provided the very grist for the mill that created the basis for knowing the prehistory of the place. I have posted before about the importance of folks such as avocational archaeologist Carl Alexander to the Poverty Point site. This group of archaeologists was the only set of individuals not mentioned by Dardenne or other speakers from the platform this past Saturday (save Senator Thompson’s brief sermon).   Somewhat fitting to this exclusion is the state funding cuts to Louisiana’s public archaeology program.
Standing with a treefall on the Poverty Point ridges that are now fully mitigated.

When the celebrations die down and lawmakers get back to the business of out budget cutting each other, as seems quite fashionable in the U.S. of late, Louisiana will be faced with the hard realities of the opportunities in having the 21st World Heritage Site in North America at Poverty Point – and the opportunities will require a commitment of time, energy, and resources.  The state has had some lessons in this fact over the years at Poverty Point.  For example, during my tenure as Station Archaeologist back in 1997, I debated with architects about whether the planned curation facility for Poverty Point needed to be climate controlled.  The architects argued that all we had up there to put in the facility were a bunch of “rocks and those clay cooking balls.”  In a similar way, the World Heritage Site status necessitated the Office of State Parks dealing with the issue of treefalls on the Poverty Point ridges and mounds.  The exposed root mass of a single treefall typically exposed thousands of prehistoric artifacts and cultural features.  Back in 1997, the state considered mitigating these events as a waste of resources.  Ultimately, establishing best practices in both of these issues clearly were preconditions for the World Heritage Site designation.

If the proclamations from the podium this past Saturday of the tens of thousands of international travelers who will be flocking to view this new World Heritage site are true, then the museum and interpretive facility will need dramatic upgrades.  For the most part, museum exhibits remain unchanged from their initial installations in the 1970s and certainly do not include the extensive research program that has taken place over the last 40 years on which the World Heritage Site nomination was largely based. In addition to Poverty Point, the past twenty years research by archaeologists such as Joe Saunders at the Middle Archaic Watson Brake site, arguably the earliest example of monumental architecture in North America, complements the Poverty Point site.  Watson Brake is just some 50 miles as the crow flies from Poverty Point.

The tourism and cultural heritage bump provided by the World Heritage Site designation at Poverty Point could be used as a true launching pad for the region.  The opportunities for the private and public development of the region are outstanding. The state of Louisiana can continue on the trajectory that led to the World Heritage designation and truly organize the resources to bring the interpretive potential of Poverty Point to the World Heritage Site status for which it is now recognized, along with an abundance of other earthwork complexes in northeast Louisiana spanning over 4000 years of prehistory.  This can be the new direction that public archaeology takes in Louisiana and can serve too as a model for the nation as well.

The End of an Era in Louisiana Archaeology

Tom Eubanks, 2004

Or What I Learned During My Time in the Louisiana Regional Archaeology Program . . .

The Fall 2013 Newsletter of the Louisiana Archaeological Society had bad news.  Louisiana’s Regional Station Archaeology Program is now effectively disbanded because of state budget cuts.  There remains one regional station in Northwest Louisiana along with the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist.  As Poverty Point was recently nominated as a World Heritage Site of UNESCO, hopefully the state will continue to fund the Station Archaeology Program at this premier earthwork complex in the New World.

From 1996 – 2003, during my seven years as the Station Archaeologist at Poverty Point, under the direction of the late State Archaeologist Tom Eubanks and the current Manager of the Outreach, Regional, and Station Archaeology program Nancy Hawkins, my commitment to public outreach as an applied archaeologist was formed.  Both Tom and Nancy’s vision of public engagement never wavered.  In fact, it was under the 20 plus years of leadership by Nancy Hawkins that the Louisiana’s Regional program helped set the standard on which other state archaeology programs were built.

Nancy Hawkins

During my tenure as the Poverty Point Station Archaeologist, I was first able to respond to the challenge I received in my first field school experience – to act as a public servant who performed tasks that were relevant to those whose tax dollars paid my salary.

One of my first experiences in public outreach in Louisiana archaeology was with Debbie Buco, a very enthusiastic Talented and Gifted teacher from Baton Rouge.  Nancy put me in touch with Debbie who was using the archaeology of Poverty Point to teach natural sciences, humanities, and social sciences to her second through fifth grade students.  After my first few conversations with Debbie, I was not certain how I could fit into her work, but I knew I wanted to tap into her enthusiasm.  For a period of several months in 1997 I had a regular email exchange with her students answering questions about the prehistoric life at Poverty Point.  What did the Indians eat?  What did the kids do for fun?  What were there houses like?  As we went back and forth via email, I learned valuable lessons on how to use archaeology to engage with the students.

Buch elem
In-class presentation, Buchannon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Toward the end of the 1997 school year, I made the trip to Debbie’s classroom at Buchannon Elementary in a clearly underserved section of Baton Rouge.  When I walked into the classroom, I was humbled by the enthusiasm the students had for a visit from the archaeologist who had been writing to them about Poverty Point and drove all the way to their school for a visit.  After climbing inside the palmetto hut they built inside their classroom along with at least three of the students, we began a conversation in the less cramped setting outside the structure.  I asked the question:

“so, if you built this house outside and came back in a hundred years after it had rotted away, how could you tell it was ever there?”

To which there was silence at first and then a response –

“by the rotted sticks . . . no the postmolds . . . yeah, by the postmolds”

the students concluded in unison.

We talked about that some, then I held up a bladelet and asked:

“Do you know what this is?”

and I expected responses like “a rock” or at best a knife or tool, but the students responded immediately in unison with the same confidence that they knew 2 + 2 = 4:

“A microlith!”

Though impressive, it was not that the second through fifth grade students had learned to memorize the names of artifact types they had only seen in pictures, or that they could understand formation processes better than some undergraduates in Introduction to Archaeology classes I have taught.  Rather, archaeology had set the students on fire in learning to read, conduct scientific experiences and more.  Ultimately Debbie Buco produced the volume Poverty Point Expeditions, a workbook that uses archeology to teach physics, scientific experimentation, story telling, and more.  Nancy saw to it that the Louisiana Division of Archaeology produced thousands of copies of the book for distribution to teachers throughout the state.  A streamlined version of the book is available online.

Palmetto house built by students at Buchanon Elementary, Baton Rouge, 1997.

Nancy organizes Archaeology Month in Louisiana and during my time at Poverty Point it was always a big deal.  I enjoyed the opportunity to take the archaeology show on the road as it were for up to two weeks every year.  My m.o. was to arrange for a school presentation during the day and then a public presentation at a library or other civic center in the evening.  I have spoken in a good number of the small Louisiana towns that might have only one traffic light and a small library.  I have posted before about some of my very memorable classroom experiences during Archaeology Month.

I learned a lot about public outreach from the library meetings in the small towns where farmers and surface collectors would come to show what they had plowed up.  During these presentations, I came to appreciate the interest avocational archaeologists had not just in their “arrowheads” but for their true respect and interest in the prehistory of the fields they plowed each year.  I spoke several times at the public library in Belzoni, Mississippi, just down the road from the Poverty Point Culture Jaketown site.  In one talk I discussed how Carl Alexander, an avocational archaeologist who collected at the Poverty Point site, would label where he had picked up many of his artifacts.  I noted that because Carl recorded the provenience of his collections, today we could better understand how the different ridges and sectors of the Poverty Point site were the locations of different types of activities in prehistory.  I showed how a large percentage of the whole projectile points were found in the north end of the site, perforators on the southwest sector of ridges, and the ubiquitous clay cooking balls had their greatest densities along the edges of the Bayou Macon.  I then asked:

“Do you all see a similar pattern of artifact types in the different areas where you collect around the Jaketown site?”

And the collectors nodded in agreement and began to talk about the clusters.  The next year when I spoke at the Belzoni library a couple of the collectors reported they had begun to take note of where they were recovering different types of artifacts.  Today there is a small museum in Belzoni where some collectors have donated portions of their collections from the Jaketown site.

Back at Poverty Point, for school group visits during Archaeology Month, I developed a 20-minute program for when a couple thousand school children jammed through the site each day over a three-day period.  My assigned station was to show how archaeologists used artifacts to interpret prehistory.  I talked about how archaeologists primarily examine the garbage left by the people who lived at the site.  To illustrate that process I would take a made bucket of dirt and artifacts and dump the content through a set of large to small nested geologic sieves.  I would then invite the students to pick out a piece of garbage from the sieves moving from large to small, and guess what the garbage represented.  In so doing, we covered everything from trade and exchange based on raw material types, subsistence from faunal remains, tool manufacture, and more.  For the last station in the 20 minute presentation I would scoop some light fraction (the stuff that rises to the top) from a soil sample placed in a barrel of water.  I said that the bits of seeds and bone were:

“not ‘like’ what the people were eating at Poverty Point nearly 4000 years ago, but the very food the people were eating”

Without fail for seven years, even the most restless student would grow quiet and strain to see those bits of prehistoric garbage.

I could ramble on with many more examples of the lessons I learned in applied archaeology and public outreach during my time as a part of Louisiana’s Regional Archaeology Program.  I am in debt to the Louisiana Division of Archaeology for giving me the opportunity to learn these skills.  Though the Regional Archaeology Program may be gone, the 20 years of work by Tom Eubanks, Nancy Hawkins, and all of my archaeological colleagues in the state will surely result in new and innovative directions for the preservation and presentation of the rich cultural heritage of Louisiana.

I got a call the other day asking for an archaeologist to come to a 5th grade class to talk about hunter gatherers and how archaeologists interpret prehistoric sites.  In the corner of my office, I see that I am still using that same bucket of dirt, replenished on occasion, to talk about the same prehistoric garbage I started with over 15 years ago in Epps, Louisiana!

National Archaeology Day Celebration Activity Ideas

In preparation for National Archaeology Day at the C.H. Nash Museum we discussed the activities we wanted to make available to our visitors. In particular, we wanted to have effective programming for the young kindergarten through 8th grade (K-8) school age visitors.  Here we consider effective as those programs that will engage, educate, and entertain our young visitors about the importance of cultural heritage presentation and preservation.  The internet has a myriad of resources that meet this need, ranging from the simple to complex.  Here are a few:

  • One of my favorites, ArchaeologyLand, I experienced for the first time this past year at the Society for American Archaeology annual meeting.  Drawing on skills of several educators, ArchaeologyLand was pulled together as a unit by Carol Ellick.  ArchaeologyLand focuses on themes of preservation and interpretation.  The program requires no high-tech equipment or skills.  All of the activities can be adapted to specific cultural regions.  In fact, this fall a student in the Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program at the University of Memphis will adapt ArchaeologyLand for a community outreach program in Peru about which I previously posted.
  • Another excellent resource is Poverty Point Expeditions by Debbie Buco, (though I might be biased as I consulted on the project).  Contextually based on the material culture of the Poverty Point site, Expeditions uses archaeology to teach a range of humanities, natural and social science skills.  Although some of the activities are more complex than ArchaeologyLand, none rely on highly technical skills or equipment.  Classroom Archaeology by Nancy Hawkins is also available as a pdf download from the Louisiana Division of Archaeology website.
  • The 2011 edition of Beyond Artifacts is available as a pdf download on the resource page of the Florida Public Archaeology Network. Besides a plethora of activities from simple to complex, Beyond Artifacts also has an extensive list of electronic resources on education in archaeology.
  • . . . and for a broad listing of possibilities, be certain to visit the Archaeology for the Public page of the Society for American Archaeology.
  • Finally, if you are looking for activities for the higher education or adult level, check out the book Archaeology to Delight and Instruct: Active Learning in the University Classroom edited by Heather Burke and Claire Smith.  “This collection of imaginative exercises designed by 20 master instructors on three continents, include role-playing, games, simulations, activities, and performance, all designed to teach archaeological concepts in interesting and engaging ways.”  I routinely use exercises from this book in my undergraduate and graduate level classrooms.  And I have one that we will give a try with the older crowd on National Archaeology Day at Chucalissa!

So  . . . if you are looking for a last-minute addition to your National Archaeology Day program, there is certainly something in the above links to suit your needs.

What are your favorite activities for effective public outreach in archaeology?